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Private grant to Wisconsin college students did little to boost degree completion, study finds
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Private grant to Wisconsin college students did little to boost degree completion, study finds

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Students on UW-Madison campus

Students on UW-Madison's campus last spring. 

The first long-term study of a lottery-style financial aid program in Wisconsin found that the private grants helped some students graduate more quickly but did not significantly increase how many ended up earning a degree.

The Wisconsin Scholars Grant provides up to $3,500 annually to Wisconsin public high school graduates attending a state public university whose family incomes fall below a specific threshold. A private foundation established the program in 2007 when UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge gave a $175 million founding gift. The foundation provided more than 10,000 students with the grant, which supplements federal and state financial aid.

The study, which was posted online last month and will be published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, examined two groups: the 2,220 students randomly awarded the grant in the program’s first four years and the nearly 14,600 students who qualified for the grant in that same time period but did not receive it.

“There’s no doubt that receiving the grant helps individual students pay their bills, but in these big, broad averages of students selected to receive the grant, we were wondering if it had an effect on graduation rates,” said Drew M. Anderson, one of the study’s co-authors and an associate economist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research firm that does public policy analysis. “Did this investment in students lead in the long run to more bachelor’s degrees? It didn’t.”

Earlier research on the grant found 21% of recipients graduated within four years whereas 16% of those without the grant earned their degree in the same time period. But looking longer-term, over six years, researchers found no statistical difference between the two groups’ graduation rates.

The latest study also found grant recipients were more likely to study science, technology, engineering or math. About 19% of them earned STEM degrees while an estimated 15% of non-recipients did.

This suggests the grant is helping some students, particularly those pursuing time-intensive fields of study, said Seton Hall University higher education professor Robert Kelchen, another author of the study.

He noted that the amount of money awarded through the program, up to $3,500 annually, may not be enough to make a dent in changing the trajectory of some students’ academic careers because they still have unmet financial needs.

Mary Gulbrandsen, executive director of the foundation awarding the grants, said the study looked at the first four years of the program, which is now in its 12th year. The foundation is trying some new strategies and seeing an uptick in graduation rates among students in more recent years.

“It’s never exactly what you want it to be,” she said. “But the response we get from kids is what keeps us going and getting us excited.”

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